A sudden upsurge of civic activism has brought thousands out into the streets in Kyrgyzstan. Parliamentary elections are on 27 February, demonstrators are demanding the reinstatement of candidates pulled from races, and the specter of recent revolutionary political change in Georgia and Ukraine looms large across the former Soviet Union.
But possible parallels tell only part of the story, for the surprising sweep of Kyrgyzstan's protests, the particulars of its political spectrum, and the importance of its current crossroads suggest that whatever path the country now takes, it will be very much its own.
Large-scale protests began when local courts started removing candidates from the ballot for the 27 February parliamentary elections. On 21 February, more than 500 supporters of candidate Arslan Maliev gathered in the Tong Raion of Issyk-Kul Oblast when a court nixed his candidacy for campaign violations, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The same day, over 2,000 people massed in Talas Oblast to protest the removal of candidate Ravshan Jeenbekov for alleged vote-buying, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) reported on 24 February. The next day, a crowd numbering from 7,000-10,000 blocked the Bishkek-Torugart highway in the Kochkor Raion of Naryn Oblast to protest the removal of candidates Beishenbek Bolotbekov and Akylbek Japarov, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Protests also took place in the Tiup Raion of Issyk-Kul Oblast to protest the disqualification of candidate Sadyr Japarov. Jalal-Abad Oblast witnessed similar demonstrations.
In the cases of Ravshan Jeenbekov and Sadyr Japarov, protests led to the restoration of rescinded candidacies. Elsewhere, the situation grew anxious. In Kochkor, a hostile crowd nearly took raion head Tariel Aitbaev hostage when he arrived to address them. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court on 24 February left in force the decision to keep Bolotbekov and Japarov out of the race, RFE/RL reported.Protests Defy Typical Patterns
Observers of Kyrgyz politics have often divided the country along north-south lines, noting that current President Askar Akaev, who has ruled now for over a decade, is a northerner, and that unrest has traditionally occurred in the south, where police shot and killed six pro-opposition demonstrators in March 2002. But the latest protests break the mold. As Edil Baisalov, head of the NGO Coalition for Civil Society and Democracy, told IWPR, "The protests began very unpredictably in quiet regions." Baisalov stressed that this is a warning to the authorities, adding: "There is a danger that the traditionally active southern regions will also rise up. To stop that happening, the authorities must reinstate the candidates."
Another conventional narrative that does not quite fit the current situation is the political division of authorities and opposition. As Russia's "Vremya novostei" reported on 24 February, the candidates whose removal has sparked protests include former officials who are hardly leading lights in the country's opposition. But the report noted that these spurned candidates, who in many cases fell afoul of regional authorities pushing their own favorites, may now join the ranks of President Akaev's better-known opponents.
The opposition, despite a welter of party and organizational affiliations, has been making moves to unify through umbrella groups and coordinated actions in recent weeks. After a local election commission barred former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva, now co-chairwoman of the Ata-Jurt opposition movement, from elections for failing to meet a five-year in-country residency requirement that has kept several ex-diplomats from running, the opposition held a number of demonstrations Bishkek in February. The demonstrations were small, gathering a few hundred people at most, but they represented a step toward a common front against the current government. During the latest wave of protests, the capital has been quiet, however, as RFE/RL reported on 24 February.
High-ranking officials also stayed quiet initially as people took to the streets in the provinces. When Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev addressed the situation on 24 February, he took a somewhat unusual tack, stressing that unrest could imperil foreign investment. Tanaev urged parliamentary candidates to be "patriots" and asked them not to blame everything on the authorities, warning that "the flow of investments into the country depends directly on this," official news agency Kabar reported. Economy To Blame?
Then again, Tanaev's remarks touch on the issue that many observers pinpoint as the greatest potential cause of unrest -- economic hardship. Russia's "Izvestiya" recently ran a three-part series on the possibility of a Georgian- or Ukrainian-style revolution in Kyrgyzstan. Correspondent Georgii Stepanov depicted a potentially explosive socioeconomic situation with quotes from Russian officials, a somewhat surprising source for such assessments in light of Moscow's dim view of the Rose and Orange revolutions.
Valerii Shageev, an adviser to the Russian Embassy in Bishkek, told "Izvestiya" that Kyrgyzstan's impressive growth in gross domestic product has not translated into an improved quality of life for most Kyrgyz citizens. Shageev added, "Officials are corrupt, and part of the grants from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and Japanese development agency end up in their pockets." Still, Shageev concluded: "The Kyrgyz are tolerant. I don't believe there will be any kind of social explosion."
But when Stepanov asked Yurii Yermolov, head of the Russian Interior Ministry's Migration Representative Office in Kyrgyzstan, about the chance of a revolution, Yermolov said, "If the authorities make a crude attempt at falsifying election results, such an outcome is entirely possible." Yermolov qualified his remarks, however, saying, "Nevertheless, I have faith in their wisdom."The Power Of Youth Groups
For those seeking parallels with Georgia and Ukraine, where youth groups played a prominent role as catalysts of political change, Kyrgyzstan's Kel-Kel student organization offers an intriguing example. The group, which took shape only recently in response to former Foreign Minister Otunbaeva's exclusion from parliamentary elections, aims to inform young people of their rights. Kel-Kel leader Alisher Mamasaliev told "Delo No" in an interview on 25 February that Kel-Kel has been in touch with Ukraine's Pora, and even held a roundtable with four Ukrainians who took part in demonstrations in Kyiv in order to gain organizational tips.
According to Mamasaliev, Kel-Kel is still small, with 150-170 members and no office of its own, and does not subscribe to any political platform. But the authorities -- who, opposition sources allege, were behind the creation of an "apolitical" student movement also called Kel-Kel that appeared at roughly the same time -- are pushing Kel-Kel toward politics, Mamasaliev said. He explained, "Instead of trying to establish contact with us and conduct a dialogue of equals, they're doing everything so that we take the side of the opposition."Battle For The Press
Dialogue with the authorities has also been strained in the area of the independent media, a crucial component in election situations. With the bulk of television broadcasting either owned by the state or under government-friendly control, print media have been at the heart of the fray. President Akaev announced in a televised address on 16 February that he will sue the independent newspaper "MSN" unless it retracts a recent article alleging that the president and his family have extensive business holdings. Critics charged that the move, which was accompanied by similar threats from the heads of state-owned companies, is aimed at silencing the newspaper.
On 22 February, a mysterious power outage struck a printing house in Bishkek supported by U.S.-based NGO Freedom House. The printing press, which prints 40 publications including "MSN," was forced to connect to a generator to restore power on 24 February, akipress.org reported. Finally, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service lost its local broadcasting capability on 24 February when the state-run radio authority unexpectedly announced it would be holding a new tender for the frequencies used by RFE/RL.
As Kyrgyzstan enters the final days before parliamentary elections on 27 February, they seem certain to be tense. Before the demonstrations started, most speculation had focused on the possibility of election skullduggery and the opposition's chances of securing a decent showing in parliament in the run-up to October presidential elections, in which Akaev has said he will not run. Now, the stakes have begun to rise. That they have done so in such an unexpected fashion suggests that this may not be the last surprise.Related Story:Kyrgyzstan: Candidates In Uzbek-Populated Osh Focus On Domestic Issues